Nelayan, which means fisherman, is a mid-sized café selling a variety of simple Indonesian food on Swanston Street. Price and quality are perfect for the student and office worker crowd, and in a good sign a majority of the crowd always appears to be Indonesian.
The main attraction here is the bain marie. While some food suffers badly when treated in this way, a lot of Indonesian food requires slow cooking for the flavours and soft textures to properly develop and it often improves when it has been sitting in the tray for a while. You can choose three items with rice for around nine dollars and the one dish that I always go for is the beef rendang. I know Ms Counting her Calories is a big fan of the rendang at Rich Maha, but I think Nelayan's is the best I've had in the city. At its peak it's rich, slightly spicy and very, very tender, and you know it's going to be good when you don't have to bother cutting it with your knife, that your fork is enough.
Other options that are usually good include the beef with potato and the soft tofu with vegetables. This beef is usually a bit firmer than the rendang but as rich in flavour and still very tender, as are the potatoes. The tofu is of the soft and silky variety and the vegetables crisp.
I also often go for the vegetables in coconut milk or the fried chicken (ayam goreng). The major issue with the chicken is that while the beef improves in the bain marie, the chicken does not. I normally go for the leg and even then it's a bit of a lucky dip. It can be really dry if it's been sitting around too long.
You can also order from the dishes pictured behind the counter. These include the usual suspects - Gado Gado (egg salad with peanut sauce), satays and mee ayam (chicken noodles). While these are generally ok I don't think they are as good as the bain marie food, which has richer and more complex flavours.
Nelayan also does a small range of desserts. The fried banana (pisang goreng) never seems to be available so I went with the es campur (mixed ice). This is kind of like a sweeter version of a Malaysian ais kachang. Shaved ice with condensed milk poured on top, in a sweet syrup with cubes of jelly on the bottom, a more accurate description might be a very much sweeter version of an ais kachang.
They also have a small selection of cakes and kueh, including onde onde and cassava cake. I prefer those at Straits Café though.
Somewhere I've been to dozens of times over the years and great tasty value. It's not the Ritz but is more comfortable than most student eateries around town and love that rendang.
Food - 7.5
Service - 6.5
Ambience - 6
Price - 7.5
265 Swanston Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: (03) 9663 5886